Building on a Hill
What a Stack of Cement Bags Says About the Architectural Zeitgeist
Given the apocalyptic overtones the phrase "changing skyline" has taken on since September 11, the structure that embodies the architectural Zeitgeist is a less elitist and more boiled-down version of the bunker mentality that defines the L.A. skyline. It stands a half-hour drive northwest of downtown L.A., in the sprawling ex-hippie enclave of Topanga Canyon: the prototype of sculptor Chris Burden's latest architectural project, perched on the ridgeline high above his home and studio.
Only slightly out of place for its obviously strategic vantage point and primitive monumentality amid the rock outcroppings and utilitarian structures that dot the landscape, Burden's Beehive Bunker is a 10-foot-high dome-shaped stack of premixed cement bags, reinforced with steel rebar and wire and interlaced with plastic soaker hoses, used to activate the hardening of the cement once they're in place. Conceived as "an extremely low-cost defensive structure to be occupied by one to three persons," Burden's latest invention made a brief debut at the Basel Art Fair this year, and will have its gallery debut in Milan in September.
To those who know Burden's work only from his legendary body-art performances of the early '70s (Shoot, in which the artist had himself shot in the arm with a .22-caliber rifle bullet; Transfixed, in which he was crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen Beetle; Through the Night Softly, in which he crawled nearly naked through 50 feet of broken glass—you get the picture), Burden's recent architectural and engineering-based work may at first seem out of character. Much of his last decade has been devoted to creating intricate model replicas of 19th- and 20th-century bridges using Erector and Meccano sets, and one recent collaboration with Linda Taalman and Alan Koch of Taalman Koch Architecture involved devising a functional low-cost four-story "skyscraper" that just scraped by under the L.A. city codes for freestanding structures.
In fact, Burden's work has consistently explored the articulation of social and political power in the three-dimensional world—you couldn't devise a more elegant précis of the structural building block of the military-industrial state than the trajectory of a bullet from the point of a gun into a human body. And many of his works, dating back to his late-'70s demystification of automotive design in B-car (a prototype one-man vehicle designed to go 100 mph and get 100 mpg) and broadcast technology in CBTV (a recreation of the first functioning television), possess an undercurrent of radical DIY empowerment.
These two strains dovetail in Beehive Bunker. Using no cranes or other specialized equipment, two or three able-bodied workers can build the 37,000-pound structure over a couple of days, using only low-cost materials from a hardware store. Topped with a heavy cast-iron manhole cover as the only entry point, and equipped with six evenly spaced gun slots, the Beehive Bunker "provides the combatants inside protection from substantial small arms fire... always offering a deflective surface to the trajectory of incoming bullets."
Of course, Burden isn't hoping to go into mass production anytime soon. In Milan, the structure will function as one piece in a four-part configuration addressing the political climate from a number of viewpoints—more of a poetic cautionary example than an immediate plan of action. Burden's other current project—the recovery and restoration of almost 200 1920s-era cast-iron streetlamps—suggests a markedly more optimistic possibility for society's future path. Still, even as it stands today—already sun bleached and peeling into a surprisingly aesthetic sculptural form high on a ridge on the outskirts of L.A.—the Beehive Bunker seems a more plausible architecture of the future than the increasingly delusional and depopulated monuments to infinite economic growth that jut from the landscape like so many targets at a shooting range. Better safe than sorry.
Doug Harvey is an artist and art critic for the LA Weekly.